Washington Top foreign policy experts have warned US President Barack Obama that his Yemen policy, steeled by lethal drone strikes on terror suspects, is not sustainable and could harm long-term US security.
In a letter fanning debate on US policy towards a hot front in the campaign against Al Qaida, the experts said on Wednesday that Yemenis perceived America as almost purely concerned with ruthless anti-terrorism operations.
The Obama administration pushed back strongly, highlighting a recently announced new $52 million aid increase to tackle Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and insisted the US approach towards the country was “balanced.”
“We believe the current US strategy jeopardises our long-term national security goals,” said the letter, signed by 27 bipartisan experts under the auspices of the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy.
A strategy that emphasises economic and political concerns would better serve Yemeni stability and US interests, “rather than a primary focus on counterterrorism efforts and direct military involvement,” the letter said.
“We accept that the US will take action against those who plot attacks against Americans when there is actionable intelligence,” the experts said.
“However, removing members of militant groups with targeted strikes is not a sustainable solution and does not address the underlying causes that have propelled such forces to find fertile ground in Yemen.”
Washington was a key player in a political transition that saw former president Ali Abdullah Saleh step down this year after an Arab Spring-inspired uprising, ceding power to the current President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Yemen, the base of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was the locus of several thwarted terror plots against American targets, including a bid to bring down a US airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Al Qurbi said on Wednesday in Dubai that the Sana’a government had asked in some cases for drone strikes to target Al Qaida leaders, lifting the veil on US attacks.
Obama said at the Nato summit in Chicago last month he was “very concerned” about Al Qaida in Yemen, after an AQAP suicide bomber killed 100 Yemeni troops.
The experts, however, called on Obama to shift from a “narrow focus” on counter-terrorism and prioritise social, economic and political development.
“The Yemeni people need to know that their country is more than a proxy battleground,” the experts wrote.
Obama aides insist their strategy, highlighted in a visit to Sana’a by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year, is already broad and balanced.
Erin Pelton, a National Security Council spokeswoman, insisted that the administration was tackling “grave” economic, humanitarian and security challenges.
“We have supported Yemen’s political transition despite those who warned that doing so would undermine counterterrorism cooperation,” she said.
“We have encouraged and supported economic reforms that will place Yemen on a more sustainable path.
“We have spearheaded efforts to help Yemen reform and restructure its military and we have significantly increased our humanitarian aid and economic assistance this year.”
The United States plans to give Yemen $170 million (Dh623.9 million) in aid this year, a sharp rise on last year’s total of $106 million.
USAID administrator Rajiv Shah last week said $52 million of that aid would go to fast action humanitarian projects, during a trip to the southern city of Zinjibar, where government forces recently routed militants linked to AQAP.
Officials argue aid can only be effective if militants are first flushed out of volatile areas in a “clear, hold and build” strategy.
They admit privately though that there is a perception among Yemenis that American interests prioritise counterterrorism.
And they say conditions in Yemen are so complicated and volatile that striking the right balance is hugely difficult and subject to sudden events.
Yemen has long been a security concern for the United States, even before the October 2000 Al Qaida suicide attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden, which killed 17 US service members.
Last year, a US air raid killed the radical US-born preacher Anwar Al Awlaqi, a key player in AQAP believed to have inspired several terror plots against the United States.